Written by: David Lynch
Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts
Nightmares have the gripping ability to find everything you fear and lock you into experiencing them while you’re meant to be resting. One of life’s biggest ironic mysteries, but the experience of nightmares provides plenty of revealing information about the person having them. Individuals can mask their fears in front of others, but inside one’s conscience, no barriers exist as displayed in the surreal and terrifying experience of Eraserhead. Incomparable with anything else, this unique and visionary work has plenty on its mind meant for the audience to interpret for themselves.
In a bleak and colorless world, Henry (Jack Nance) makes his way to have dinner with his girlfriend’s (Charlotte Stewart) parents, where he learns she’s pregnant and has a child. With this flipping the script for him and his entire life, the experience of raising the child with her becomes an excruciating life-consuming experience.
Nothing about Eraserhead can be taken in a straightforward manner, especially if you know the man pulling the strings being David Lynch. Famously known for not caring to give definitive answers for what his stories mean, he has fun in letting others try to interpret it. A frustrating decision for some, but the visual and thematic splendors he puts out for us to process astound me to no end and I know each time I watch a Lynch film, I need to be prepared to not understand everything going on. This film kick-started his career and gets right at the heart of the terror he can easily induce, especially with what occurs in Henry’s mind.
With all of the strange visuals occurring in this feature, it becomes difficult to distinguish what transpires in Henry’s reality or in his head. Even the moments appearing to be set in reality have their nightmarish qualities, much like the dinner at Mary’s house. The relationship he has with her could not be aptly described as warm and caring, seeing as he had no clue about the dinner until the very night in question. He shows up and immediately gets asked details about his life by Mary’s mother. These questions get asked less so in an inquisitive manner and more in an interrogative tone. Nightmare fuel for some already, but the evening only gets worse, when he gets questioned about whether or not Henry has had sex with Mary to which he becomes reluctant to admit even with intense pressing by Mary’s mother. This is where he learns about their extremely premature baby and how he must now take care of it.
Just when you think the dinner at Mary’s parents’ place brought enough dread, caring for their child becomes its own level of horror. Much of it comes from the appearance of this baby and how it looks mostly inhuman, undoubtedly representing the way Henry views the prospect of having a child. The baby’s constant crying would drive anyone nuts, which makes it difficult for Henry to process his thoughts, especially when he has to care for it by himself. This baby contributes not only to the horror-inducing elements of the feature but also the thematic throughline of what a baby represents in Henry’s conscience. While many parents find a child to be a blessing in their lives, this baby essentially feels like a drain of his life force and something preventing him from doing what he wants. The sequences with the baby make the case of it being purely a nightmare sequence in Henry’s mind, but as with everything else, we cannot be 100% sure.
The main contributing factor to the dreadful experience this film unleashes comes from the sound design. From the constant buzzing to the infuriating baby crying, it really seeks to unnerve the audience as they experience this terrible mental struggle for Henry. Whether it’s the radiator roaring in the background or the other sounds permeating Henry’s mind, something always seems off when comparing what we hear and see. One example appears in the puddle Henry steps in whereas the audience, we assume to hear the splash, but we hear nothing. Something small but outside of our perception to the point where what we do hear becomes even more intentional, and therefore frightening.
Serving as a feature film debut, Lynch takes complete control with this feature working not only as the director, but also as writer, producer, editor, and sound designer. He has a hand on every single aspect that makes this film extraordinary and I can only imagine the initial reactions this received when it first landed in theaters. There have been other surrealist filmmakers, but coming right out of the gate with something like Eraserhead is truly unimaginable and surely let people know exactly what they can expect with this director.
With the simplicity of the plot in a broad sense, the imagery instilled in this feature can lead you down quite the rabbit hole of ideas and perceptions. The sexual references alone says plenty. What I consider to be integral to this story may be different for others, which completely explains why this film carries so much power. To this day, I contend Eraserhead to be the scariest I have ever seen. Not only on a base level with the horrifying imagery and sounds, but the whole atmosphere built. It became something I could not stop thinking about and the more it permeated my mind, the more it completely and utterly unsettled me.